I recently worked a flight on which a passenger fell ill. Actually, the passenger fell down, as in passed out. The phone call from the cabin became the first of many, and it kept us pretty busy as we flew to Vegas. Medical events don’t happen every day for each crew, but they’re pretty common.

As you might expect, the flight attendants immediately asked the passengers if a qualified medical professional was on board. In this instance, there were two of them. After the passenger was returned to her seat and regained consciousness, they questioned her about how she felt, her overall health, and any medications she might have been using. This took several minutes, but once they had some useful information, they called us. We, in turn, contacted the company and had them patch us through to MedLink.

MedLink is a service provided by contracted medical professionals to the airlines. When a medical event develops on board, the doctors at MedLink will talk to the pilots, collect the information they need, and make a recommendation about either diverting or continuing to the destination. This service can be used 24 hours a day, seven days a week, anywhere on the planet. The doctors also have a database handy that will allow them to quickly determine which medical facilities might be available for a particular issue. On a domestic flight, this might seem like overkill, but on international flights over sparsely populated areas or third world countries, this information can be critical.

In our case, it helped that we had medical professionals on board whocould help process the information from the passenger and provide an objective, professional analysis of her condition. In our case, we split the various communications duties between us. I handled ATC communications and took the calls from the cabin while the captain handled communications with the company and MedLink. Had the ATC workload become too great, I would have simply asked them to stand by. Once the company and MedLink were taken care of, I stuck with ATC and the captain took over all secondary communications.

MedLink and the folks in the cabin recommended that we press on based on the passenger’s condition. We consulted with the company and the doctors on the ground to determine the best diversion alternates for our situation if the need might arise. We were flying over an open array of farmland with no large cities immediately available. For several minutes, the best option would actually be behind us. Beyond that, we could at least deviate forward.

I’ve been lucky. My medical events have been relatively rare, and in all cases, we’ve been able to make it to the destination. Eventually I won’t have any choice but to divert. But, with the help from the doctors on the ground, I can make sure the airport I choose will give my passenger the best chance of a good outcome, and I won’t have to make that decision alone.—Chip Wright